Summary: Life is becoming more digital and the digital is becoming more alive.
On one hand we have the rapid rise of Second Life and other virtual worlds. On the other
we are beginning to annotate our planet with digital information, via technologies like
I was reading a feature about Second Life on the plane and next to me was a man in
his late fifties, named John. As it turns out, like me John was a graduate of Lehigh
University. He was class of 1967, while I was 1994. He’d never heard about Second Life,
but when I explained to him the concept he had a good laugh and then asked: “So is this
for those who did not quite make it in the First Life?” No, I replied, this is quite
different – it’s a whole new world. What happened next was probably even more surprising
than the fact that we went to the same school. John said to me:
“You know it would be really cool if the airlines conducted computerized
tours of the places that we are flying over. It could be powered by GPS and we could see
a mix of maps and videos about all these places.”
I thought that was a neat idea. But what struck me even more is the fact that it came
from (nearly) 60 year old civil engineer. At that moment I no longer had doubts – our
future is digital. Digital Life and Life Digital are going to be two parallel paths that
we will take over the next decade. Both of them will mix Life and
Digital to challenge and change the way we think about ourselves and our
What is Digital Life?
For the purpose of this post, we define Digital Life as a collective of the virtual
world technologies that are bringing life to the digital realm. All of them create
environments where participants live in a digital form. These worlds mix the real and
imaginary, they both follow and break the laws of physics. They have concepts of markets
and money. They have cities and islands. Most importantly, they are unique venues for
innovation and self-expression.
Second Life – Your Best Digital Life Now
Linden Labs’ creation Second Life is currently the
leader in the Digital Life space. With close to 8 million inhabitants, Second Life has
received much media attention in the blogosphere and mainstream press. It is appealing
because of its rich design, which elegantly blends real world-like features with fantasy
and game elements. But Second Life is very different from virtual world video games –
because it is not a quest. You are not chasing anything and nothing is chasing you. The
core of Second Life is social.
As in real life, you can walk around and talk to people. You can drive cars, climb
stairs and even purchase things – most importantly, you can buy land. Commerce is one of
the secret sauces in Second Life, since (as the song goes) money makes the world go
around. The official currency of Second Life is Linden dollars, which is convertible to
and from the dollar – so any user can participate. Together these social and commercial
aspects of Second Life make the world realistic and engaging.
But the characters in Second Life are unmistakably digital. Since you can fly with a
touch of a button, geographical boundaries are inconsequential. You have a complete map
of the world; people have tooltips with names above their heads; pointers, posters and
advertisements are all based on rich media. There is really nothing like this in our
physical world. This collective digital experience is unusual and exciting, stimulating
There is little doubt that worlds like Second Life are going to be increasingly more
engrossing. At the end of the spectrum of possibilities, we can imagine wearable
technologies that enable total submersion into a virtual world. This is not happening
anytime soon, because of the complexity involved in mimicking human sensory experience.
In the mean time, virtual worlds will take smaller steps – like adding voice
communication and trying to scale to the increasing demand.
What is Life Digital?
The second focus of this post is what I will call Life Digital
– a set of technologies that aims to put a digital mesh on top of our reality.
Futuristically speaking, we are talking about magic glasses that overlay digital
information on top of real-world scenes as you walk around. The closest modern version of
this technology is Google Earth – a detailed 3D
visualization of the Earth.
Even though Google Earth is a simulation, one of its main functions is to augment
geographical information with digital information. In a way, you can think of the program
as tagging each place on Earth with all sorts of relevant information.
The precursor of this technology was destination software, like Vindigo, which brought restaurant reviews, movie guides
and destination reviews first to PDA’s and later to cell phones. Using this technology,
you could punch in an address and a kind of cuisine – and get a list of restaurants in
response. The difference now is that information is tied to exact physical coordinates
and there is much more of it – the world wide web!
But where these technologies become really interesting is when you combine them with
cameras inside cell phones. Imagine going out to your back yard, pointing to a tree and
asking: What kind of tree is this? or imagine walking around in a new city,
pointing to a building and getting its complete history.
Tagging and annotating our physical world with digital tags and other kind of digital
information will make our world much richer. Perhaps the device that is capable of
creating this experience today is the much hyped iPhone. It certainly has all the
ingredients to make it happen – it is the matter of connecting the dots.
Life is becoming more digital and digital is becoming more alive. On one hand we have
the rapid rise of Second Life and other virtual worlds. On the other we are beginning to
annotate our planet with digital information, via technologies like Google Earth. In both
cases digital information is breaking geographical boundaries and overcoming the
limitations imposed by our physical world. Flying in second life has the same affect as
linking a Wikipedia entry to the Grand Canyon as rendered in Google Earth.
Information is being unleashed and re-shuffled. We are beginning to look at
information from literally a 1000 foot view. And everything is becoming increasingly more
connected. This is both very exciting and a bit unnerving. We are accelerating into our
digital future from all directions – pushing digital towards life and pushing life
Do you agree that this is happening? Please share your experiences with virtual worlds
and annotated reality.